Sarah Portnoy, PhD
How did I get into teaching tacos and all things Latinx food related, you might ask? Ropa vieja, moros y cristianos and stories about Cuba were part of my childhood. My grandfather and great-grandparents immigrated from Nicolaev, Russia (today Ukraine) to Cuba during the 1920s, escaping the Russian Revolution. My father spent the summers of his childhood with his grandparents, aunt and uncle in Cuba. While I didn’t grow up in a Spanish-speaking home, Cuban food, music and culture played an important role in my upbringing and Cuban dishes bring back childhood memories.
After graduating from Emory University, I moved to Spain where I took a class on the Spanish ballad tradition, a decision that changed my life’s course. We went to distant, dusty villages recording elderly women who sang at-times scandalous stories they had learned from their mothers and grandmothers. I found this oral tradition fascinating and decided to return to the United States to pursue a PhD.
So, how does one get from ballads to tacos? In 2007, I got a job in the Spanish Department at the University of Southern California. I moved from S.F. to Los Angeles where I began commuting to USC. As I’d get closer to campus, I’d see this wealth of Latinx food culture—panaderías, pupuserías, yet my students studying Spanish were unaware of what was just blocks away. I started to think about ways they could interact with the Latinx community, use their Spanish and learn about the culture through its food. In 2011, I created “The Culture of Food in Latino Los Angeles”—a class in which students write about their culinary and cultural adventures visiting markets, restaurants and trucks and discuss concepts such as gentrification, culinary appropriation, and authenticity.
Food, I soon realized, has a story to tell and is an excellent lens to learn about culture and people. Food stories enable people to “speak” with each other, they function as a system of communication. My work on food stories has opened up many interesting opportunities. In 2022, I curated an exhibition entitled “Abuelita’s Kitchen: Mexican Food Stories” at LA Plaza de Cultura y Artes in Downtown Los Angeles new space “LA Cocina” and created and produced a documentary film about the ten Mexican and Mexican-American grandmothers who participated in the exhibit. https://laplazacocina.org/exhibit/abuelitas-kitchen-mexican-food-stories/
In 2022, I was awarded a National Endowment for the Humanities Media Production grant to create a documentary film series about Mexican grandmothers in the Borderlands. We are currently in post-production on 3 of the episodes and wrapping up production on the San Diego episode soon! Stay tuned for more from Abuelitas on the Borderlands in early 2024!